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Posts Tagged ‘uke’

Ahhh, I have my life back, at least as much as it was ever mine in the first place, which means I can get back to all those things that got put on hold while I was studying for my diploma – painting Third Company Blood Angels, trying figure out how to write a novel, and getting the hang of the split stroke. And, of course, looking at some really old and obscure movies off YouTube, which may or may not connect with my other interests.

So it’s time to break out the Second World War comedy-thriller reviews! Marcel Varnel’s Let George Do It! was made in 1940, one of the (these days) less-remembered products of the famous Ealing Studios company. Made in the early days of the war, this is a film which is clearly trying hard to lift the spirits of people with a lot on their mind. Its success can be measured by the fact it was an international hit under a variety of titles – screening in the USSR under the very un-Russian title Dinky-Do. Inevitably, looking at it over seventy years later, it comes across as a bit of a curiosity.

The staff and guests at a hotel in Bergen, Norway are shocked when the resident band’s ukulele player is murdered mid-performance. (If you play the uke as badly as me, this is an occupational hazard, but this guy was supposed to be a pro.) However, there is more afoot than someone taking exception to a badly-executed triplet strum – the dead ukist was in fact working for British Intelligence, on the trail of a Nazi agent feeding shipping information to German U-boats.

Back in London the spymasters of MI6 respond with alacrity – send another ukulele-playing intelligence operative to Norway at once, to replace the dead man! The theatrical agent they are working with (yes, yes, I know this is all soaringly improbable and actually quite silly) assures them this will not be a problem. However a mix-up at the docks, involving the Dinky-Do concert party which the agent also represents, culminates in the wrong man being sent to Bergen. Who can it be? Who could possibly be the leading man of a morale-boosting, rather silly comedy thriller, and do all his own ukulele playing to boot? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr George Formby.

Formby is one of those performers who clearly does not hold with any of that ‘dramatic range’ business, as he plays virtually the same character in all of his films – a good-hearted, slightly dim, but ultimately resourceful Lancastrian bloke who can knock out a funny line with the best of them and is a master of the ukulele too (although, and I feel we should be technical here, he very rarely plays a genuine ukulele, more often choosing the uke’s more forthright cousin, the banjolele). His star has faded somewhat in the last couple of decades, but when Let George Do It! was made he was one of the biggest stars in the UK.

Anyway, once George figures out he’s in Bergen, and not Blackpool as he had been expecting, he joins forces with British Intelligence’s girl on the scene (Phyllis Calvert) and together they try to work out how the bad guy (Garry Marsh) is getting his information to the German Navy.

The film doesn’t hang about and all is done and dusted with a minimum of nastiness and maximum of cheer well inside an hour and a half. And I have to say that I enjoyed this film with a degree of sincerity that rather surprised me, because a lot of the comedy stuff is genuinely amusing even now. The resourcefulness of the many scriptwriters in extracting the maximum comic potential from the simple phrase ‘Dinky-Do’ is rather awe-inspiring, and there’s a bit where George has to go through customs with the luggage of a conjuror which is a lot of fun too. On the other hand, there is perhaps a bit too much reliance on Formby blundering into any situation and wreaking complete havoc, and some of the slapstick seems laboured and primitive now. Certainly the film gets broader and more openly ridiculous as it goes on – something which starts off close in tone to a genuine thriller concludes with George being shot out of the torpedo tube of a U-boat onto the deck of a passing ship. I don’t think even Tom Cruise would try to get away with something like that nowadays.

There are four big musical numbers, and – why am I even worrying about these things? – the film doesn’t have to stretch credibility too much to work them in, George being a ukulele player in a band, after all. The biggest of these is ‘Count Your Blessings and Smile’, a nice enough tune but one which features Formby going hands-free. I suspect a lot of people seeking this film out now will be doing so just to marvel at Formby’s legendary right-hand technique, which is given due prominence in ‘Grandad’s Flannelette Nightshirt’, ‘Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now’ and ‘Don’t The Wind Blow Cold’ (yes, these really are the names of songs in the Formby repertoire). For all the naturalism of the way in which the songs are written into the script, George does spend a lot of the time winking and grinning at the camera while actually performing them, but listening to that syncopation I will forgive anything.

Other points of interest in this film include the usual appearances by latterly-famous actors in supporting roles – here, Coral Browne (the future Mrs Vincent Price) plays the villain’s girlfriend, while Bernard Lee is unrecognisable as an angry Norwegian (Lee also appeared in The Third Man, but will probably be best remembered for playing M in the first eleven Bond movies). And, there is a very peculiar sequence in which George, off his face on truth serum, has wild hallucinations – which almost appear to anticipate some of the imagery of A Matter of Life and Death – concluding in him imagining himself flying to the heart of the Reich and sticking one on Hitler. The Americans had Captain America, we had George Formby.

Let George Do It! is generally acclaimed to be the best of Captain Lancashire’s star vehicles, and I must say I’m tempted to observe that if this is the best one, I can’t imagine what the worst must be like. But that would be rather unfair, because this movie is knockabout good fun, has moments of genuine class, and served a very valuable purpose in its day. If George really wants to do it, then I would say go ahead and let him.

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My Struggle

As regulars may have noticed (and possibly appreciated), it’s been quiet for a few weeks on the uke front: well, as in the blog, so in life. I’m not quite sure why this should be but it surely can’t be a coincidence that it’s happened since I went to the first meeting of the local uke group.

It’s always interesting to go to a new pub, although this may turn out to be a singular pleasure as sheer numbers mean that the group has outgrown this particular boozer and we’re all off to a place I’ve been to a few times as of the next get-together. The Mighty Uke screening seems to have had a catalysing effect inasmuch I wasn’t the only newcomer there.

All in all I think nearly twenty people turned up wielding a variety of different uke makes and models; I was initially worried that I’d be the only one packing plastic but a few other Makalas were also present. I’m pretty sure I was the only lefty there, though.

The meeting was graced by the presence of the prime mover of another local uke group who proceeded to run through the basics of the instrument and then half-a-dozen songs. This format seemed to be very popular with the assembled ukers and I must confess I can’t think of a better one with which to replace it. But I must confess to being slightly ambivalent about the experience.

Firstly – and let’s get this out of the way – I decided not to join in with the singing. This was partly due to the fact that I’d only just met these people and didn’t want to get chucked out on the first night, but also the reality of playing as part of a group felt completely different to playing alone, and was actually rather more challenging. On the one hand going off the rhythm or flubbing a chord change wasn’t that big a deal as the noise from everyone else covered it up, but on the other hand I was still aware of it and it was a little disconcerting to know I was making so many mistakes.

The other major thing was that, as a largely autodidact uker, I’m used to coming up with my own (probably rather eccentric) strums to suit the different songs I tackle – well, they’re derived from the books I have, but I inevitably end up spinning them a bit. At the group we played six rather diverse tunes, all of them using the same strum (Swiss Army or calypso or whatever you want to call it). This was completely different to what I was used to.

Another disconcerting issue was the fact that my uke seemed to be losing its tuning every five minutes, which isn’t like it at all. Rastamouse, my advisor on all things musical, has suggested that I may be strumming harder or for longer periods, which may explain this phenomenon. Possibly the vibrations from nearly two dozen massed ukes may have been having an effect as well. Not sure. Not really a big deal as long as I remember to pack my tuner I suppose.

So yes, I am going again, although I haven’t put nearly as much uke time in recently as I did in December. Partly this is because other stuff has been going on rather a lot: trips to the cinema, stuff to do with the diploma, and so on. I used to squeeze in ten or fifteen minutes late-night practice at the end of a busy day but the young woman in the garret adjoining mine has made it very clear through the medium of banging angrily on our shared wall that she would rather I didn’t.

(Knowing someone can actually hear me fooling around on the thing has sort of made me a bit reluctant to practice at all, if we’re honest. Nevertheless all it takes is a little casual strumming and a quick rattle through House of the Rising Sun or Edelweiss or When I’m Cleaning Windows and I’m as keen on the uke as ever.)

So we shall see: firstly how the uke group gets on in its new environs (changes in my workload mean I won’t be able to stay until the end of the meeting this week, but that can’t be helped), and then about finding regular practice time at a reasonable hour of the evening. The omens are not that great, but such are the realities of diploma year I suppose.

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For this week’s ukulele-related witter I thought about sharing with you my thoughts on the subject of practising, or finger-picking, or how one goes about learning a new piece. And yesterday, rather to my alarm, I learned that Dr Kermode also plays the ukulele and I may in fact be coming across as some sort of strumming, film-reviewing wannabe stalker. But anyway, I thought I would use the occasion of the festive season to talk a bit about a seminal figure in the history of the uke.

Now, possibly more than with most instruments, I expect that one’s exposure to the ukulele when growing up is shaped by where you live. So if you grew up in the USA your uke heroes of years gone by were probably people like Arthur Godfrey or Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (maybe even Tiny Tim if you’re particularly warped). If you are Canadian, your experience may well be influenced by the likes of James Hill. But for those of us who live in the UK, the ukulele is virtually synonymous with one man, and one man only: George Formby OBE.

(It is practically obligatory to point out, when writing about Formby in a uke-related context, that the great man’s weapon of choice when performing was not a uke at all, but a banjolele. That said, clips of Formby playing a standard uke are around on the internet, and even one rather jolly song where he doesn’t accompany himself at all. But I digress.)

When I was young, Formby’s movies were on the telly all the time – usually in the afternoons and at weekends, admittedly. These are not prestige productions and the plots do all tend to merge into one – rather in the manner of Jackie Chan, George invariably plays a thinly-disguised version of himself, who stumbles into all manner of odd shenanigans. The plots are not overly complex and regularly pause so George can perform a number on his banjolele.

Even when I was very young, these films were strictly only-if-there’s-nothing-at-all-else-on material, and later on they were often on in the background just to provide noise while I was doing something else. And yet, and yet…  I distinctly remember watching one of these films in my late teens (it may have been Much Too Shy or Bell-Bottom George), and the plot grinding to a halt so Formby could perform a fairly mild and bucolic number about the pleasures of being a country milkman. But my response to the song was ‘Wow, this guy can play the hell out of that ukulele.’ The only thing I can honestly compare it to is the first time I properly listened to someone like Hendrix or Brian May on the electric guitar: a revelatory moment.

I was doing an amateur production of My Mother Said I Never Should a couple of years after that (stage management, I wasn’t in it, obviously) and there’s a Formby song on the ‘soundtrack’. We borrowed a Greatest Hits CD and had it playing all the time while we were working on the show, and my admiration for Formby’s uke skills did not diminish; I even made myself a sneaky copy of that CD, something of which I don’t usually approve. And when I was living in Japan and hanging out down the internet café a lot, the music I was listening to on YouTube was obviously very varied, but I do recall a few Formby sessions going on then as well.

So I’m beginning to wonder if buying the uke was quite the bolt out of a clear sky that it felt like at the time. I’m still rather surprised to find myself playing the thing, but it’s not like I haven’t enjoyed listening to ukulele music for decades.

Of course, comparing Formby to other notable ukulelists , his style is very distinctive – quite simply because with George the real magic has nothing to do with finger-picking or chnking or anything at all connected to the fretting hand. It’s all about the strumming hand. I get the impression that one of the reason why Formby is a divisive figure amongst modern British uke players is because his playing style is so distinctive, and at the same time quite limited. Even I will admit Formby does not seem to have been the most versatile player – but I still really rate him.

First of all, Formby is – and I am by no means professionally qualified to talk about this – an extremely competent strummer, by which I mean fast and rhythmical. The next thing is the repertoire of strumming ‘tricks’ Formby employs: by which I mean things like the Triple Strum, the Split Stroke, the Fan Stroke, the Circle and the Shake.

Now, the modern world being what it is, there is a cottage industry on YouTube of people offering advice and tutorials on how to emulate ‘the Formby Style’. Most of these folk are also banjolele players – and, in passing, I note that they further emulate George by affecting the same kind of gormless stare-to-camera when playing – but so far as I can tell there’s no difference in technique between the regular uke and its circular-bodied cousin.

I should say that most of the tutorials I’ve looked at have been very useful, and I have the mechanics of the Split Stroke more-or-less down in terms of the actual movements of the strumming hand. But this only goes to increase my admiration for Formby’s technique as a) he does the Split Stroke while rattling back and forth between chords and b) he does it at a blisteringly fast tempo. I am working on the Split Stroke as part of my practice routine but I can’t really conceive of ever really approaching that kind of speed.

So the more I learn about Formby and his style, the more I admire him. At the back of my mind is the ambition to master the Formby Style and see about applying it to all sorts of songs – partly, I concede, for the comedy value intrinsic in doing a Formby-esque take on Delilah or Bad Moon Rising. Will I get there? I don’t know. But I think it’s important to have a long term aim, and probably also beneficial to admit that this man is probably a large part of the reason why I picked up a ukulele in the first place.

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Christmas draws close and my Diploma course grinds irresistibly on (to say nothing of work commitments and going to the movies), but still I am managing to find the time to practise and write about the ukulele and my increasingly complicated relationship with it. So far, here or hereabouts, I have written about my reasons for picking up a uke in the first place (I think the word self-justification should have been in there somewhere, but never mind), the mechanics of strumming, the basics of fretwork, and probably the one and only occasion in history when I will ever jam with James Hill.

Quite how long I am going to continue to find brand new topics for each installment of this strand I don’t really know, but this week I would like to share a bit of an epiphany which occurred just the other night.

When I do a full proper practice session I aim for at least an hour and generally try to mix stuff up: some of Aldrine Guerrero’s finger training exercises to kick off, then a trot through a few set pieces and a rattle through one of the tunes I already know – currently limited to House of the Rising Sun or Passenger (normally the former as the very simplicity of the latter makes it easy to get lost inside it). After this I generally move on to some melody or finger-picking stuff and/or an attempt at a new song.

This week I got my hands on the Yellow Book from the Ukulele Playlist series and started tackling a couple of the songs from it. I must join the consensus and agree that these books are really good if you are of the strumming-accompaniment-to-your-own-singing persuasion. That said, I’m still not wholly sure of how the musical notes above the lyrics translate into actual strumming, and the difficulty levels of the songs vary wildly and aren’t always clear – one can innocently start to look at Hotel California, completely unaware that virtually every chord in it is different.

Anyway, this week I had a crack at Rockstar, which is a nice friendly song for a beginner: very reasonable (i.e. slow) tempo, not many chords, and lots of repetition of chord progressions. I also started looking at Dream A Little Dream Of Me, which I’ve always liked and seems like a bit of a uke staple. (There are numerous versions on YouTube; my favourite is this one, though this may not be solely due to the quality of the strumming and fretting.)

However, despite the relatively simple strumming and slow pace, the chords in DALDOM turned out to be rather complicated – not the chord shapes themselves, but the issue of how to transition rapidly between them without breaking a couple of fingers. It all boiled down to how make the initial D chord – which finger, and whether to barre the chord – in a way which allowed me to go straight into the Fdim which immediately follows it.

And, eventually, I figured it out (a first finger barre, if anyone’s interested. I’m aware this may be an unconventional and possibly even idiosyncratic finger position). From the Fdim, the Em7 and the following A are a doddle, but in the third bar you run straight into a D – C# – C progression with a B immediately following. Going from the C to the B at speed is proving incredibly difficult and I am looking for a way of consistently achieving the transition.

I spent at least an hour twiddling around with this and ultimately only stopped when the muscles in my fretting hand started to complain. And I found I was actually quite reluctant to take a break, despite the fact that my playing still sounds rubbish and I can’t consistently play anything all the way through, let alone DALDOM. That was when I realised how much more cheerful and relaxed I have been since I’ve started messing around with the ukulele.

Initially I was worried that taking up the uke would turn out to be another in a long line of silly and embarrassing ideas I would ultimately do my best to forget (finishing a novel, learning to speak Klingon, getting married, etc). But I can see myself sticking with the uke, even if it’s just at the messing-about-in-the-garret level I’m currently at. One way or another my ukulele engages both sides of my brain, the how-exactly-do-I-get-my-fingers-from-here-to-there problem-solving part and the let’s-get-some-rhythm-and-emotion-into-this creative part. Most of the things I stick with tick both these technical and creative boxes, so – the feasibility of my mastering the fabled Formby Split Stroke aside – it looks like I and my uke are in it for the long haul. Which feels a cheerful thought right now.

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